It's no secret that a lot of American mass culture today...well, isn't very good. OK, cultural-relativist euphemisms be damned: It sucks. Robert James Waller and Danielle Steel outsell Steven Millhauser and Grace Paley by millions; John Tesh and Yanni fill concert halls around the country; Red Lobster and Sizzler are unavoidable. What can we do? Should we be worried?
Forty years ago, the New York intellectuals would have quivered in terror, awaiting the apocalypse sure to be wreaked by rampaging Midwestern yahoos overheated by unceasing ingestion of kitsch. Thirty years ago, the answer lay in flight to the countryside or the inner city, two "real" places where The Man couldn't make you buy his jive. But now we mostly can't be bothered: Either we dismiss everything with an ironic sneer or throw up our hands and leave the fray, cocooning in our own little niche and watching the world outside consume.
So it shouldn't take a cultural-studies seminar to realize that there might well be something to learn from the popularity of Cats and Michael Bolton. And that something might even be, dare I say it, political. Are there important, if inchoate, yearnings encoded in Tom Clancy's novels? Are Adam Sandler movies subverting anything important? (Maybe not.) Unfortunately, Joe Queenan, a journalist and satirist, wasted a wonderful opportunity. Though he took the plunge and swam in the pool of dreck--a year filled with Burt Reynolds movies and dinners at the Hard Rock Cafe--his book isn't equipped to answer those questions; most of the time, he doesn't even seem aware that they might be asked.
Which isn't to say the book's not funny. If anything, Queenan's addicted to the good line, especially the absurdist simile, a few of which go a long way: "casting Demi Moore...in The Scarlet Letter is like casting Bruce Willis as Young René Descartes." But laugh value aside, this isn't exactly a revelation--would anyone, even the star himself, expect Bruce Willis to play René Descartes? He's a star because he looks great shooting bad guys while wearing a sweaty undershirt. Would Clark Gable have been any better in the role? Given a choice between the cheap shot and five minutes of reflection, Queenan always takes the easy way out.
Perhaps this attention deficit is an index of the low standards for humor today, in which it's assumed that no one will want to read you unless you a) have a sitcom, or b) don't make them wait more than a paragraph for the joke. In fact, Queenan's at his best not, as he seems to think, when executing drive-bys on the obvious, but when taking his time, plumbing with merciless detail the full horror of certain experiences: a documentary of the stupefying.
He gives troupers like Barry Manilow and Wayne Newton their due. And he's hilarious writing on the Olive Garden, which is given to gilding its menu with faux-Italian monstrosities like "Brownie Decadenza." The same goes for Red Lobster, "a chain geared toward people who think of themselves as just a little bit too upscale for Roy Rogers," where the "menu consisted almost entirely of batter cunningly fused with marginally aquatic foodstuffs and configured into clever geometric structures." (It's worth asking what's made Red Lobster a nationwide phenomenon, however: Are most Americans addicted to deep-frying? Do we want our fast food ennobled by some whisper of "class"? Or is it all advertising's fault?)
Similarly, Queenan's trip to Atlantic City is a masterpiece of mordant--and completely appropriate--disgust, from his entry on a bus crammed "with a battalion of cadaverous low rollers" to his final vision of hell: Sitting at a $5 blackjack table, "being dissed by a guy with a bad suit and a bad mustache and bad hair and a bad job and a bad family and a bad attitude, and it was all my fault that life hadn't turned out the way he planned."
When Queenan actually lets down his guard and experiences the awful, his anthropology of trash has something to tell us. Watching Liza Minelli emote in Victor/Victoria, the author marvels at a crowd composed of equal parts gay men and heterosexual tourists: "It was like wandering into a room filled with a thousand pastry chefs and five hundred big-game hunters. How did these people find each other?"
His reading of popular fiction is the most acute part of the book: Queenan notices how often horror novelists terrify with italics (unspeakable being a favorite) and severed ears, and how desperately hacks scrabble for a bit of brainpower by opening their works with quotations from heavyweights they've no doubt picked up from a quick ramble through Bartlett's. (To return the favor, he suggests Shakespeare might be prefaced with this mot from Tom Clancy: "The Hughes 500D is an extremely quiet helicopter due to sound baffles in the Allison 250-C20B engine.")
But too often Queenan relaxes into easy condescension toward people in polyester with bad hair and loud voices, perhaps because he's more than a bit nervous about his own status--as the repeated assertions of his own highbrow cred (the Kronos Quartet, Iris Murdoch) are intended to make clear, should his readers labor under the misapprehension that he, you know, actually likes this stuff. But that's his biggest mistake: Good pop-cult criticism only happens if you admit pop culture's hold on you. Disdain is easy; it's nuance that's hard. What differentiates a good wrestling match or 90210 episode from a bad one? There's a long strand of satire that's energized by affection (think of anything from S.J. Perelman's 1930s parodies of pulp fiction to MST3K), all of which has had something to say about the way we live, then and now, because it takes mass desires seriously.
Joe Queenan, sadly, is more interested in sneering than in listening. Asking more of his book is like...it's like, as he would put it, asking Jeff Foxworthy to star in The Sound and the Fury.